As a solo musician for 30 plus years, contributor to the groundbreaking Yellow Magic Orchestra, film composer, and relentless activist, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s body of work embodies a spirit more than it demonstrates an auteurism or trajectory of vision. Sakamoto started at the peak of technology in the latter half of the 1970s experimenting with synthesizers and sequencers and starting a mini eastern hemispheric revolution by looking at traditional Japanese tonalities through electronics. In 2009, he’s still on the forward-front of digital development, not only through his latest prolific phase of scores and collaborations with modernists like Alva Noto, Christian Fennesz, and Christopher Willits, but also through his latest deal with iTunes that will see him releasing every single show of his 2009 tour, downloadable online within 24 hours of the event.
The album that the tour is in support of, Out of Noise, Sakamoto’s first full-length solo work in 5 years, is aptly diverse and prescient, yet austere and sullen. The title is a mystery as the album seems neither carved out of noise nor does it seem to be devoid of it. Its technology is obscured by the subtlety of its implementation amidst traditional instrumentation and field recordings. The only exception to this rule is the blissful droning of the wall-of-sound “Firewater”, which show Sakamoto learning a few tricks from his recent Austrian laptop composer partner Fennesz. Unlike many aging musicians who grow out of touch and out of focus with modern music, Sakamoto’s latest is vibrantly in touch with the sounds of now, particularly the interstition between 20th or 21st century classical and the various post-Eno explorations of non-beat oriented atmospherics.
The album is unexpectedly bookended by what are Out of Noise’s most seemingly extrinsic pieces. Commencement piece “Hibari” is 9 minutes of a single theme on a piano. A world apart from minimalism though, the work transposes from a tempered slipknot to an elegant fumble that threatens to, though never succeeds in tripping itself up. Instead the theme begins looping in odd spots and the tempos of each hand at the keyboard begin to slip away from each other. The result is familiar sound made unfamiliar by it reconnections and collisions with other familiar sound. The song’s space becomes hard to track as Sakamoto continues to fill them unexpectedly.
On the opposite end of the album is “Composition 0919”, a piece of Reichian simplicity also confined to the piano that, by contrast, locks both playing hands together in staccato spurts. The notes ping pong between the left and right speakers and in aggressive movement with practically no low-end variation. It’s also all-rhythm on an album that seems to repel or discourage said element in the rest of its numbers.
The remainder of the album mostly floats on waves of gentle and often gorgeous liquid ambience. In fact, the back-to-back duo of “Ice” and “Glacier” are damp and drizzly slow-melting rocks. Knowing Sakamoto, the leaking throughout “Glacier” is likely a comment on global warming, but beyond the insinuations lies a beautiful polar monolith carved from faint melody, feedback, and incidental noises reverberated sparsely across the icescape. It’s a bleak loneliness, captured in long-shot as a splendid tragedy. In its simplicity rests much of its appeal.
“In the Red” similarly strips down tension and misfortune to a concise communication. Tremoloed piano chords play in repetition as warm pads swarm in the backdrop and Kranky-style guitars plink scarcely while samples of a small bit of dialogue from an old man are looped and dragged across five minutes. “I just feel like/ I’m a little lost but/ I’ll be alright”, he says in much slower succession, the final phrase repeating even as the song’s harmonies, a bit like a less ethereal version of recent Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie collaborations, disagree with the assessment of the speaker’s condition. He finally concludes, at song’s end, “Yeah, I’m alive” with what seems like a sigh of resignation.
Resignation, but not surrender. When Yellow Magic Orchestra made their comeback album Technodon in 1993, it boldly sounded nothing like the band who put their last album out ten years prior. At Sakamoto’s age, he could easily surrender to the temptations of churning out just about any kind of retread for drooling fans to swallow, but instead he has put out a thoughtful, quiet album. Sure, it’s not all as stoically graceful as the tracks described above. “To Stanford” is hotel jazz probably cropped from a film score Sakamoto was working on and “Nostalgia” is just kind of boring and ineffectual. Yet, Sakamoto’s aesthetic is such that he remains a towering figure even as the music industry falls and the ice caps melt. Out of Noise fits neatly into that uncompromising legacy.